Talking in code

The housing code “may be too strict in some things and too lax in others.”

– Asheville Mayor Charles Worley

Revamping the city’s minimum housing code — a massive document covering everything from enforcement techniques to window screens — is a complex and tedious task that has kept a citizen task force, city staff and Asheville City Council members busy for more than a year with few clear signs of finding common ground. But with Council now poised to consider amending the code at the Aug. 12 formal session, one key concern overshadows all the rest: mandatory home inspections.

A group of real-estate agents and landlords wants the city to switch to a complaint-driven enforcement system. Code supporters counter that the current approach has made Asheville’s housing stock better and safer.

The 21-member task force, including people on both sides of the argument, kicked the code around for many months without managing to reach consensus. In March, the group presented Council with two conflicting sets of recommendations, which were forwarded to Director of Building Safety Terry Summey and his staff.

Last month, Summey returned to Council with a diverse array of options — compromises based on the suggestions of both task-force factions, as well as input from city staff and Council members. Council, however, instructed Summey to draft a single set of staff-endorsed recommendations in time for the Aug. 12 session, rather than leaving it to Council members to sort it all out.

That meeting, meanwhile, will add yet another perspective to the mix: public comment. Citizens will be given a chance to weigh in before Council members begin voting on the proposed changes.

The current code requires inspections of both rental and owner-occupied homes in order to get a certificate of occupancy (without which a new occupant cannot get utilities turned on). Rental properties are inspected every five years; owner-occupied dwellings are inspected at each change of ownership, unless the property has a current C.O. (good for seven years).

The impetus for the present code, recalls former Council member Barbara Field, was the 1990 census, which revealed that nearly a third of Asheville’s total housing stock was substandard. Field, an architect by trade, says many homes lacked such basic amenities as heat, decent plumbing and even working kitchens and indoor bathrooms.

“It was appalling,” she declares. Working with other Council members and outside resources, Field helped put together the current mandatory system, approved in 1990 for implementation in 1994.

Code red

“Compliance deadlines made a lot of landlords unhappy,” Field observes. And because rental inspections are on a five-year cycle, the units targeted by the first round of inspections are due to come under scrutiny for the third time next year.

Mandatory inspections, says Field, were a given from the very beginning, though some compromises were made along the way.

“We tried to come up with something that worked for everybody,” she explains. “It was a fairly long and extensive process.”

And a complaint-based system, argues Field, “would be like not having anything at all. We would be exactly where we were in 1990.” Without the mandatory inspections, she maintains, the city wouldn’t have seen the degree of compliance it has had.

Task-force member Jim Barrett agrees. Under a complaint-based system, says Barrett (an attorney for Pisgah Legal Services who also works with the Affordable Housing Coalition), landlords and homeowners “would just be on the honor system.”

Barrett also notes that Asheville had a housing code before the current one but, absent any meaningful enforcement mechanism, the system was for all intents and purposes complaint-based.

In the meantime, he says, a tight rental market forced many renters to take what they could get. And if a tenant was unhappy with the condition of a property, the landlord could always find someone else who was willing to take it.

Complaint-based systems, Barrett maintains, are fundamentally flawed because tenants fear that they’ll be evicted if they speak up (and he knows of cases where that’s happened, he notes). Since Asheville adopted mandatory inspections, says Barrett, the number of evictions in the city has decreased and is much lower than in the county (which has a complaint-based system).

And because tenants (and even landlords) are not necessarily familiar with the safety issues involved in heating and electrical systems, they can’t spot the same kinds of problems a trained inspector might recognize.

What’s more, says Barrett, the city can’t rely on the complaints of neighbors seeking to protect their own property values, because by the time a home’s exterior has become so rundown that the neighbors make a fuss, the interior is often beyond repair.

The bottom line, say supporters of the current code: Mandatory inspections have improved local housing, and abandoning the system would have dangerous results.

A waste of money?

As might be expected after so much wrangling, opponents of the current code have plenty of arguments of their own.

Task-force member Stephen Duncan, who has emerged as a de facto spokesman for those favoring changing the code, questions how much credit the inspections deserve for improving the city’s housing stock.

“There’s no measurable results,” he gripes. “We estimate $4 million in public and private money has been spent, and no one can cite any … proof of impact.”

Duncan, a real-estate agent by trade, maintains that new construction over the past few years has made a greater difference in improving the overall quality of local housing. Summey, however, disputes that argument, saying, “That’s not even close to the real facts.” New construction, he points out, must conform to the state code, not the city’s (new buildings are exempt from the city code for seven years). Summey also maintains that he has thousands of files documenting renovations of existing housing in the city.

Duncan, meanwhile, also challenges the argument that tenants who complain are at risk. The state, he notes, already has laws to protect them, as well as systems in place to make sure complaints get into the right hands.

“I can find you bad properties in Asheville, but I can show you how to deal with it,” says Duncan.

As for the drop in house fires, the local numbers, he points out, are consistent with national trends, even though few cities across the country have similar codes.

Asheville Fire Chief Gregory Grayson more or less echoes Duncan’s assessment. Although Grayson says he’s proud of the drop in fires in Asheville, he believes increased educational outreach and the more widespread use of smoke detectors must also get some credit.

“I’m not willing to stick my neck out professionally and say it’s because of this or that,” cautions Grayson, adding that any prevention is good prevention.

The essence of the revisions proposed by code opponents, notes Duncan, is that inspecting everybody — rather than focusing on substandard properties — wastes money and energy for both owners and the city. He also asserts that the cost of the required inspections drives rents and housing prices higher.

Duncan adds that, due to the city’s constant fiddling with the code, a home can be in compliance one day and in violation the next.

Some code opponents have also argued that mandatory inspections may violate constitutional rights of privacy and due process.

“Tenants have a right to privacy too,” says Duncan.

Targeting offenders

The proposal that Duncan brought to City Council — and also presented at several meetings of the Council of Independent Business Owners, a politically active citizen group that’s generally opposed to government regulation — calls for a complaint-based system in which not only tenants and neighbors but also social workers, police officers, teachers and others could report suspected housing-code violations. Those violations could then be addressed as needed — by inspectors armed with warrants. And if a house had more than one violation, it would revert to mandatory inspections until the problems were resolved.

“They should go after the bad guys,” he declares.

Asheville Mayor Charles Worley, who served on City Council in the early ’90s when the current code was passed, says he anticipates some changes.

“We may have put too many things in there,” Worley concedes. “It may be too strict in some things and too lax in others.”

But he doesn’t expect the city to shift to a fully complaint-based system.

Field, meanwhile, predicts that compromise will probably result in changes that may make the system easier for homeowners to deal with. And some supporters of the current code predict that Council may loosen the rules governing owner-occupied dwellings and reduce the percentage of units in an apartment complex that must be inspected.

Terry Summey, too, has indicated that staff will be recommending some changes. But he has so far declined to say too much about the details of what he’ll bring back to Council, saying the recommendations are still undergoing legal scrutiny. So for now, Asheville residents hoping to crack the code are left waiting for the Aug. 12 session to find out what happens.

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